Armchair Revolution

Blythe House Decant
August 1, 2016

by Phil James, Museum Technician


This article addresses the approach undertaken to treat upholstered furniture in an ethical and non-invasive way. Re-upholstering an object using tacks would irreversibly alter its condition, risk harming existing decoration and might destroy or obscure traces of original and later coverings. For example, fibres of materials can sometimes be found, or remnants of previous fixings, such as brass tacks, which are said to indicate earlier flocked or leather upholstery. Permanent changes to an object made by re-upholstery influence the understanding of its history, condition, and the direction of conservation.

In early 2014, I began work on a project to develop a method of upholstery support for seven armchairs and a daybed for the new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries with Zoe Allen, Senior Gilded Furniture and Frames Conservator. A carved, gilded and painted armchair (W.6-1956) from a suite of furniture made for Marie Antoinette’s Cabinet Particulier in the Palace of Saint-Cloud was the first of the group to be conserved. It was made by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené (1748–1803) in 1788 and was painted and gilded by Louis-François Chatard (ca. 1749-1819). Both Sené and Chatard were principal chair makers and gilders to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the chair bears the maker’s stamp. The criterion that nothing could be nailed into original wood demanded that non-permanent, easily removable and reversible supports had to be devised for the back and arms of the chair. These could then be upholstered by traditional methods, away from the chair, to avoid the risk of damaging its fragile surfaces. Other institutions have carried out similar work, so while the methods described here are not new, some of the materials used are a development by the V&A.

The chair had lost all trace of its original coverings and had been re-upholstered several times, leaving the wood severely weakened and peppered with holes. It was last upholstered in the 1970s in a blue fabric using tacks (Figure 1). In places the fabric hung in swags, which was likely to have been suggested by eighteenth-century wax models of chairs made by designers to show their clients. For the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries, it was decided to re-cover it in a hand-embroidered material based on the original design on the fire screen of the same suite in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on the research of Xavier Bonnet of Atelier St Louis, Paris. Xavier, the upholsterer engaged by the V&A for this project, uses traditional methods and is an authority on historical upholstery. After the blue coverings were removed, the chair was fully examined and the fragile gilded and painted surfaces conserved, including the removal of the greyish-blue overpaint to reveal a white tone which would have complemented the original coverings.

Armchair before treatment (W.6-1956)
Figure 1. Armchair before treatment (W.6-1956) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A four-part wooden stretcher-frame of poplar wood, chosen for its fine grain and stability, was made for the back, which is not symmetrical and includes compound curves. The process of making the frame began with taking detailed measurements and templating the chair’s shape. The parts were assembled using simple dowelled butt joints strengthened with brackets, allowing a good fit to the chair to be achieved (Figure 2). Brass clips screwed into stainless steel inserts set into the frame and positioned closely to each corner of the chair back hold it in place. They will not be obvious on display and they show that the upholstered back is an attachment.

Wooden stretcher-frame made for the back of the armchair
Figure 2. Wooden stretcher-frame made for the back of the armchair (Photography by Phil James © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The structures for the arms, also compound curved, had to be made of a rigid material that fitted them tightly and would resist deformation during upholstery and repeated handling. Resin-bonded carbon-fibre has been used elsewhere for similar work but was not suitable because the arms are slightly pinched in at their bases, and the stiffness of such a material would abrade the already weakened wood. The bonding process is also hazardous, requires a controlled environment and is time-critical. We experimented with different materials and found that suitable structures could be made of Buckram cotton fabric and wheat-starch paste. The forming process needs only basic controls and if necessary the structures can be re-worked. The arms were prepared with a protective layer of cling-film. A layer of Buckram saturated with wheat starch paste was shaped across the arms in strips about 40 mm wide and hardly overlapping. A second layer of Buckram was laid dry and overlapping the joins of the first layer. The paste in the first layer was wet enough to penetrate the second and additional paste was applied where necessary to sufficiently wet the cloth. The wet Buckram would distort if left to dry unsupported, so it was clamped into shape using acid-free card with a Melinex® barrier. The forms were left for about 24 hours and then monitored until fully dry (Figure 3).

Arm support for armchair drying
Figure 3. Arm support drying (Photography by Phil James © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Unsupported, the forms were sufficiently flexible to remove easily without abrasion and re-fit closely to the arms. They were then trimmed to the lines of the arm mouldings and a 5 mm ‘pocket’ was created around the edges out of Buckram and paste to sew on the layers of upholstery. The padded shapes of the arms are made of horsehair covered by hessian, which needed to be fixed to the tops of the forms under tension with tacks. For this, a profiled length of poplar wood to tack into was attached with hot glue, clamped lightly so it would not distort the Buckram, and consolidated with Buckram and paste, producing a finished shape appropriate for the upholstery (Figure 4). Clamping was necessary at each wet stage to maintain the shapes of the forms. Any distortion was corrected by dampening the affected area and re-clamping. For the upholstery work, profiled supports were made for the frame and forms, which reduced the risk of damaging them.

Arm support part-upholstered
Figure 4. Arm support part-upholstered (Photography by Phil James © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The methods employed for this chair guided the treatment of the other seven but additional ways of creating some upholstery supports had to be devised, particularly for the Jean Baptiste Tilliard daybed (W.5-1956). The aim of the project, which was to restore the chair as closely as possible to its original appearance, has been achieved after much research and the collaboration of a number of specialists (Figure 5). The upholstery might change again, but without irreversibly altering an important part of the Museum’s collection.

Armchair after treatment (W.6-1956)
Figure 5.  Armchair after treatment (W.6-1956) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Europe 1600-1815 has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the children of Her Highness Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani, the Friends of the V&A, The Selz Foundation, Würth Group, The Wolfson Foundation, Dr Genevieve Davies, William Loschert, the J Paul Getty Jr Charitable Trust and many other private individuals and trusts.

About the author

Blythe House Decant
August 1, 2016

As Decant Conservation Liaison, I work closely with the wider Blythe House Decant collection team and transport contractors to prepare our collections stored at Blythe House for their move to...

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